Unchecking the Boxes

This week the Feminism Blog is proud to feature a guest post from Erica Rich, NSVRC Training Specialist, and a former sexual health education professional and coordinator of an LGBTQ youth group.

□ Male     □ Female

One of the first things we tend to do upon seeing a person is to place them into a gender category—boy or girl, male or female, man or woman. But what happens when someone comes along who isn’t so easy to place—when we can’t tell just by looking at them which box to check?  This situation tends to make people pretty uncomfortable.

I remember a series of Saturday Night Live skits from back in the 90’s about a character named Pat, who was neither clearly masculine nor clearly feminine in appearance or behavior (often termed androgynous).  The people who met Pat would go to great lengths to try to figure out whether Pat was a man or a woman while at the same time trying to avoid offending Pat by asking.  The characters would stumble over which pronouns to use (he or she), whether to call Pat “Sir” or “Ma’am”, and even which haircut or skincare product to offer.  The skits featuring Pat were so popular that they were turned into a movie, “It’s Pat”.

The skits about Pat, humorous as they may have been, highlighted some of the real challenges that people face if they don’t fit neatly into the male or female boxes that we have created.  We live in a culture in which everything from clothes to toys to colors is gendered and there isn’t much room for in-between.  Have you ever tried to buy a baby shower gift for a couple who has decided not to find out the baby’s sex until birth?  Even talking about people who are gender non-conforming (those who do not adhere to society's rules about dress and activities for people that are based on their sex) is difficult as we don’t have the language in place.  I’ll admit, even I had a difficult time writing about Pat without saying “he” or “she”, or resorting to the grammatically incorrect term “they”. 

While the people in the SNL skits generally tried to be sensitive towards Pat by not making assumptions or using inappropriate terms, the reality for gender non-conforming people is starkly different.  In a recent school climate survey, 29% of LGBT students who said they conformed to traditional gender roles reported being verbally harassed by peers.  When the question was asked of LGBT students who identified as gender non-conforming, that number nearly doubled, at 58.7%.  Gender non-conforming LGBT youth were also more than twice as likely to report being physically assaulted (8.9%) than those whose gender identities more closely matched their biological sex (4.0%).  

The unwritten rules about what is acceptable for males and what is acceptable for females—along with the idea that those are the only two possibilities—are so deeply rooted in our culture that those who attempt to bend or break those rules are often faced with harassment and violence.   A binary gender system that promotes violence and harassment against gender non-conforming people is a system that promotes sexual violence. Instead, let’s work toward a system that values all people, thinks outside of the two boxes, and respects each person’s right to individual expression.

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